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The SNP Is Locked In A Battle Between Its Head And Heart Over IndyRef2

"From the heart, I want the next referendum to be yesterday," said one party member. "From the head, I want it to be when our lady tells us it’s time."

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"I’m against the UK in any circumstances, in or out of the EU or the common market or whatever," said SNP member Donald Anderson on the final day of the party's conference in Glasgow. "None of us will ever vote to stay in the UK – F, U, K."

The 3,000-strong crowd of delegates at the cavernous SECC venue are once again certain that they're on the brink of leaving the United Kingdom. Following the UK's vote to leave the EU, against the wishes of people in Scotland, the prospect of another referendum on independence much sooner than anyone previously expected is dominating every conversation.

Party leader Nicola Sturgeon's announcement on Thursday that she will publish a new independence referendum bill next week received the first, and most enthusiastic, standing ovation of the entire conference.

But behind the obvious desperation to see Scotland become independent, party members are keenly aware this could be their last chance.

Party staff – even after long nights at well-catered receptions in and around the conference venue – insist there's no secret schedule for the timing of the next referendum. But both the staff and the eager party members all seem to agree on one thing – they only want the next referendum to happen when they are certain of victory.

"Would you like this answer from the heart or from the head?" said party member William Prowce, showing off his new "Yes 2" badge while mulling over the timing of the next vote. "From the heart, I want the next referendum to be yesterday. From the head, I want it to be when our lady tells us it’s time.

"Nicola is privy to things we’re not privy to and I think she’s doing a great job. We’re not quite guaranteed the numbers yet, and when she’s sure we’ll get the numbers we’ll call for a referendum. I'm willing to wait just wee bit longer – although I'd prefer months, not years."

Prowce may be disappointed. After the rapturous applause had died down following Sturgeon's headline announcement of the publication of the draft independence referendum bill, closer study of the words wrapped around it revealed a cautious politician who appears to be in absolutely no rush to hold a rerun of 2014's vote.

"You know, there's not a day that passes just now without someone advising me to hurry up with a referendum," she said in her opening address to the conference. "And there's not a day that passes without someone advising me to slow down – welcome to my world.

"But the responsibility of leadership is to act in the best interests of our country as a whole. The morning after the EU referendum, I said that I'd be guided at all times by a simple, clear test. What is best for the people of Scotland?

"That's the principle that I will continue to be guided by – and I know I can on your support every step of the way."

Those final five words have been interpreted as a call for patience among the party members as the wholly unpredictable consequences of the UK leaving the EU become clear. Sturgeon won't call before she knows what the terms of Brexit will be, which will only become more apparent after Article 50 is triggered by March 2017, and then that process could take two years.

The election of Angus Robertson as deputy party leader at the conference was also seen as a victory for the side of the party who urge patience and caution, as opposed to his main rival Tommy Sheppard MP, who was believed to be more keen on holding a referendum sooner rather than later.

Robertson told BuzzFeed News on Saturday that he will be advising Sturgeon to only call for a second referendum when victory is all but certain, and said he's confident party members won't get restless as they wait for their second stab at persuading Scots that they'd be better off in an independent country.

"I’ve been struck by the degree of agreement around supporting the Scottish government pursuing all options and developing the potential for different ways to protect Scotland’s place in Europe," said Robertson. "SNP members understand how important it is to get this right and that's more important than doing it too quickly or too slowly – doing things correctly.

"If the only option we have at the end of this process is to have a referendum, then we will be ready for it. We will have a strong case and we will do it because we think we can win."

Robertson may be right about the patience among the SNP members who have friends, colleagues, and connections in the party. There is, however, a much more fundamentalist element to the Scottish nationalism movement – hundreds of whom appeared outside the conference venue on Saturday for an independence rally – which is more difficult for the SNP to keep under control.

Many of those SNP voters, such as Gary Mitchell, aren't actually members of the party but have attached themselves to the SNP cause as a means to an end of independence. If Sturgeon is seen to drag her heels on the next referendum, they say that there's is a very real risk that that the strongest pro-independence voters could abandon her.

"We need away from the tyranny of Westminster and the sooner the better," Mitchell told BuzzFeed News. "The people who live in Scotland deserve to control what happens in their lives. [Sturgeon] is playing this her own way, but if she doesn’t bring us independence – and soon – the SNP will be gone. A lot of these voters are here for independence, she’d better remember that and she better be careful.

"I know a lot of members who would revolt if there’s not a referendum very soon. You need to remember that a lot of these people don’t give a toss about the SNP, they care about independence."

There's another view in the party, championed by former first minister Alex Salmond, that the political stars have aligned for the SNP and that the environment for the next referendum will never be more perfect than it is right now.

Even taking the Brexit vote aside, it's unlikely the SNP will ever gain more MPs than the 54 it currently has in the Westminster parliament. The loss of its majority in Holyrood in May's Scottish election was the first bit of regression for the party since 2007, and it reminded them that there's no guarantee they'll be in power – and able to pass a referendum bill – forever.

SNP politicians also appear genuinely angered by what they viewed as xenophobic rhetoric from the Conservative party at its conference in Birmingham last week, and some believe a referendum fought against this UK government, distracted by negotiating Brexit, will be far easier to win than the one in 2014 when David Cameron, who had a clear passion for the union, was prime minister.

As SNP voter Keith Boyce succinctly put it when asked about the new Conservative government: "Boris Johnson is the biggest clown of the lot – why should we be ruled by clowns? What happened in 2014 is that they told us we’d be stronger together, and now they’ve upped sticks and left [the EU] and everything’s a mess."

Whenever the next referendum is held, there's a received wisdom in the party that the next vote on independence will be the last one, regardless of which way the result goes. Many SNP members are well-versed on the independence referendums in Quebec – where the second vote against leaving Canada in 1995 saw the independence movement there come to a grinding halt.

"We want this referendum as soon as practically possible and when we have a reasonable chance of winning," said party member Donald Anderson. "There’s no point in going off half-cock – if we lose this then that's that, we’ve had it. We can’t keep doing this."

Sturgeon is an unassailable leader of a dominant SNP – but her decision to pull the trigger on the next referendum will ultimately define the futures of both her party and Scotland itself.

Jamie Ross is a Scotland reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Edinburgh.

Contact Jamie Ross at jamie.ross@buzzfeed.com.

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